Bass Management: Three Steps to a “Live” Rumble

Imagine the life of the typical electric bassist in the typical recording studio in the overdub-focused, isolation-obsessed production environment of today. He or she shows up with a bass or two, and maybe a favorite amp. Chances are, the engineer will simply toss the player a cord, plug the cord into a direct box, and be done with the process of managing the bass-signal chain. If it’s the bassist’s lucky day, the engineer might begrudgingly allow an amp to be set up, and then place an actual microphone close to the grille of the speaker cabinet. Even in these situations, a direct line will also be employed, and those who embrace the betting lifestyle will likely put money on the fact that the direct line will be the main component of any amp/direct blend. How exciting.
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While I’m not bagging on the professionalism of recording engineers in general—or even criticizing home-studio musicians armed with trusty DAWs and minimal miking experience—it just seems that bass sounds receive less love, attention, and experimentation than what is usually focused on documenting guitar, drum, and vocal sounds. As a result, electric-bass tracks tend to be relegated to support status, and while that role is definitely a facet of the bassist’s lot in life, it doesn’t have to mean that the bass tone on a recording is always doomed to sound conventional, boring, or uninspiring.

One way to punch up the sonic charisma of bass tracks is to kick in some “live vibe.” The dimensional quality of true live-performance tracks where the impact of a rhythm section is intensified by the rumbling of wood stages and the myriad reflections inherent in the venue is a beautiful thing. And, believe it or not, you can simulate some of the more powerful elements of live sound into any recording simply by blending various ambience, compression, and EQ treatments into the main mix.

A good reference to what I’m trying to do is provided by the compressed, slapbacked, and totally in-your-face drum sound on John Lennon’s 1970 single “Instant Karma.” Produced by wall of sound originator Phil Spector, the track throbs and drives with subtle applications of live-sound artifacts such as cracking mids, resonant lows, and ambient decays. It’s all yummy as hell (at least to me). Now, let’s see how we can steal a few tricks from the master to animate and intensify the sound of a bass track.

Step 1: Lower the Ba-Boom

The wall-shaking thump of a bass amp interacting with the architecture of a small club—or booming throughout an arena via powerful subwoofers—is a pretty thrilling component of live music. And yet, it’s not typically a brilliant move to just crank 80Hz on an EQ to increase the bass boom, as the sound may collapse into indistinct mud. I recommend treating your bass track no differently than you usually do. This will be the main bass track. But first, clone an unprocessed version of the original bass performance to an open track. Now, using your favorite graphic EQ program, drastically cut all frequencies above 250Hz. Next, boost whatever resonant frequency sounds the most warm and juicy to you—80Hz, 100Hz, 150Hz, etc.—by at least 6dB. At this point, heavily compress the clone bass to taste (start at a 4:1 ratio with a –10dB threshold). Yes, the resulting sound will be awful, but your goal is to simulate the throbbing, near-indistinct rumble of a bass signal blossoming through walls and floors. Ultimately, the boomy clone will be ever-so-carefully blended with your “good” bass track to produce the effect of an attack (the notes of the main bass track) immediately followed by a rumble (the clone). Play with the level ratios between the two tracks until you’re jazzed with a taut, but deliciously fat bass tone.

Step 2: Bring on the Slap ‘n’ Snap

Using an effects send on your main (“good”) bass track, route the signal to a delay program. Dial in a slapback effect on the delay—no more than one repeat should be audible—and, if possible, set the wet/dry mix to the equivalent of 100 percent wet. Assign the effect to a free track on your mixer. As with the bass-boom technique, carefully adjust the effect level until you can barely hear the slapback. You’re attempting to emulate a bass signal reflecting off the side walls (or ceiling) of a small stage. Again, this is a subtle enhancement, but it helps add dimension and a tight wallop. Also, as the effect is on its own track, you can EQ or compress to dial in the slap more (or less) effectively.

Step 3: Embrace the Wash

The final ingredient is adding the ambient resonance of a good-sized concert hall. This is kind of a dangerous step, as too much reverb will wash out the bass track. Using another effects send on the main bass track, route the signal to a creamy reverb program, choose a nice room or hall preset, and set the wet/dry mix to 100 percent wet. Assign the reverb to its own track. Now, sneak that sensual wash into the mix just enough to animate the bass sound and very subtly add a dash of ambience. By this time, you should have a punchy, vibey, and pulsating bass that almost jumps out of the mix. Close your eyes, and if you can imagine yourself rocking out in your favorite concert venue, then you’ve done your bass duty for this operation. Bravo!